Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bending the Truth Toward Peace

It is amazing how the Torah manages to find the strangest, and yet somehow the most powerful means of healing and transforming humanity. In the Torah this week, we learn of the strange, leprosy-like disease called Tzara’at, and the rituals for its healing and purification. We learn about the rituals for the final purification of one who has recovered from Tzara’at: the priest takes two birds. One bird is sacrificed, the other bird is set free. The whole affair seems so very strange and mysterious. Why so much attention to the disease of Tzara’at? And why are these birds used to purify people from this disease?

In order to begin to unpack this ritual, we must remember how our ancient sages taught us to understand the disease of Tzara’at: that it was an affliction that represented evil speech. Through slander, gossip, through any kind of words that brought ill-will and violence against others, one became afflicted with this disease. Our skin, our clothes, even our houses would erupt in a snow-white rash that reflected Divine displeasure because of our hurtful words. Probably the most famous victim of Tzara’at is Miriam, the sister of Moses who, in the book of Numbers, speaks out publicly against her brother Moses because he married a Cushite woman. Her public slander of her brother’s marriage immediately brings on Divine retribution, and she is suddenly covered in this white and scaly disease.

Very strange indeed! And then there is the matter of this healing ritual with the two birds. Why is one slaughtered and the other set free? Rashi, the great medieval commentator, explains that birds are the perfect choice in this ritual because they are “mfatfetin tamid b’tzifzuf kol,” they are “chattering constantly in their chirping voices.” Birds, in their way, never stop talking! The Sfat Emet, a more recent commentary, explains the meaning of this ritual exactly: one bird is slaughtered because that bird represents the idle prattling that has led to the hateful and hurtful words in the first place. The second bird is set free, however “lehachin hapeh v’lashon l’hotzi bahem divrei Torah,” “to prepare the mouth and the tongue to bring forth words of Torah [only].”[i] In other words, there are two kinds of speech: there is our mindless prattle that we use day to day that often leads to gossip and slander; and then there is the kind of speech that we rarely see—words used for the sake of the holy, words used to build up others, words used to heal the world itself rather than to destroy it.

There is a story told of how Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Peshischa, was ordered by his teacher, Reb Yaakov Yitzhak, the Yid HaKodesh, to make a journey to a distant and unremarkable village. When Simcha Bunem asked his master why he was being ordered to this little town in the middle of nowhere, his teacher remained silent.

So, Reb Simcha Bunem set out, accompanied by several of his own Hasidim, on the long journey to the little town. The sky had already turned to dusk by the time they arrived at their destination. Because the town had no inn, Reb Simchah Bunem ordered his coachmen to stop at the first cottage they saw. He knocked at the door and was invited in along with his students. When they asked whether they could join their host for dinner, the man replied “Of course you are welcome. I just need to let you know that I am not serving a milchig, or dairy meal this evening. Tonight, I am serving a fleishig, or meat meal.”

Instantly, the Hasidim bombarded the man with questions about his level of Kashrut. Who was the shochet (the butcher) in town, they demanded to know. Was the meat “glatt,” or free of even the smallest blemish, and was the meat salted sufficiently to draw out all traces of blood, as was required by Halakhah, Jewish law? The interrogation would have continued had not a commanding voice from the back of the cottage called out to them.

They turned their attention from the owner of the home to a man dressed as a beggar sitting near the hearth smoking a pipe. “My dear Hasidim,” the beggar said. “With regard to what goes into your mouths, I see you are scrupulous. Yet, regarding what comes out of your mouths, you make no inquiries at all.”

When Reb Simcha Bunem heard these words, he knew the reason for his journey. He nodded respectfully to the beggar, thanked the householder for his concern, and returned to the wagon , saying to his students, “Come, we are now ready to return home to Peshischa.” [ii]

So what, indeed, was it that Reb Simcha Bunem understood through that beggar’s chastising words? After all, what, in fact, was wrong with the questions the Hasidim were asking to the householder? Is it not proper for Jews to be concerned that their food is kosher? Is it not a sign of their impassioned love of Torah and serving God properly that one Jew should ask another Jew about the meat so that no one transgresses--God forbid!—any of God’s laws?

As a matter of fact, we can wonder the very same thing about Miriam when she spoke against Moses’ marriage to the Cushite woman. Miriam was a great woman, a leader of the people. The Torah doesn’t present us with specifics, but we can surmise that she had her good reasons to be angry at Moses’ choice of wife. Clearly, she passionately believed that he had done wrong by taking that particular woman as a wife, and something needed to be done about it and, as a woman of influence, she spoke what she believed to be right!

And yet, God struck her down, and she became riddled with disease. And similarly, those Hasidim, with all their bombarding questions, were whisked away from that home, eternally chastised because of their careless words. In both instances, despite their good intentions, these people were speaking with impure speech. Despite their desire only to speak words of Torah they, in fact, desecrated everything that the Torah stands for through their words! So if that is the case, how can we ever know if our words truly are the good kind of speech or the evil kind of speech?!

Earlier in the Torah, we learn that when someone sees an outbreak of Tzara’at on their body, “V’huva el Aharon HaKohein o el echad mibanav hakohanim.” “They must be brought to Aharon, the High Priest, or to one of his sons, the priests.” It’s rather a strange instruction. We know that all priests were trained in how to recognize Tzara’at. So why does the Torah make a point of saying that the afflicted person had to be brought specifically to Aharon or to his sons? We know, of course, that Aharon was a very special figure in the Torah. Aharon, first and foremost, was a beloved man. All the Israelites simply loved him. When Aharaon died, they mourned him longer than Moses himself. We also know that Aharon was a peacemaker: he was “Ohev Shalom v’rodef Shalom,” “He loved peace and pursued peace,” “Ohev et habriot umekarvan leTorah,” “He loved all of God’s creatures and brought them close to Torah.”

Finally, we also know that Aharon was a man who understood everything about proper speech. It was Aharon who spoke on behalf of Moses before Pharaoh, after all. Almost always, Aharon knew when to speak and when to remain silent. And when he did open his mouth, his intention was always to spread love of God, of Torah, and of peace between human beings. It seems that he was constitutionally incapable of idle prattling. Of course someone stricken down because of their evil speech should go before Aharon, to be in the presence of one who knows all how to use our speech properly!

Most significantly, Aaron knew how to use his speech to create peace among human beings. The Midrash Avot deRabbi Natan tells us: How did Aaron love and pursue peace? When he saw two men engaged in a quarrel, he would go and sit down with one of them and say to him: "Consider what your friend is saying! He is broken hearted; he rends his clothes and cries out: 'Woe unto me! How shall I face my friend? I am ashamed, for it is I who wronged and sinned against him!"' Aaron would sit with this man until he had removed all ill feelings from his heart. Then Aaron would go and sit with the other man and say exactly the same thing to him until he expelled the enmity from his heart, too. When the two quarreling men eventually met, they would embrace and kiss one another.”

In this teaching, we see why Aharon is central in our understanding the nature of right speech verses wrong speech. When Aharon sat down with the each man, was he, in fact, telling the Truth about his fellow? Was the other party rending his clothes in guilt over wronging his fellow? No! It’s not what happened! It’s a white lie, it’s an untruth in the service of a higher Truth! And herein is the secret to right speech: When it comes to using our words, our speech, the ways of peace take precedence over the ways of Truth. To put it another way, we must always bend the truth toward the ways of peace, and away from the ways of discord.

Just open the newspapers on any day if you want to see how much we’re not understanding this teaching: Just look at the Americans who refer to the president as ‘Barack Hussein Obama.’ Yes, it’s true: that’s his full name. But that choice of words is diseased, it’s Tzara’at, because it bends the Truth toward the ways of quarrel and ill-will. That simple insertion of a middle name slanders a human being by connecting him up with Muslim extremists in popular conscousness.

Look also at how people approach the debate over healthcare in this country. There are opponents of healthcare who feel so strongly about their cause that they say that the healthcare bill is the end of our cherished American value of Freedom! Whatever your politics on this issue, it’s clear that this kind of rhetoric is about making use of words for the sake of what some people believe—at the expense of those who disagree with them! Again, speech is being used to bend Truth in the direction of discord and incivility instead of bending in the direction of peace and finding common ground to solve national problems.

Tragically, the disease of Tzara’at is rearing its head all too often within the American Jewish community, as we struggle over the future of Israel. With the rise of the J-Street vs. Aipac phenomenon, we see Jews on both sides speaking such derogatory and condemning words about the other side when, in fact, we’re all Jews! We’re all seeking peace in our homeland! It’s the same thing over and over: we all mean well. We all use our Divine power of speech in the service of what we feel to be right. All any of us want is a world of peace, and yet, in our confusion, we don’t understand that all peace in the world begins with how we use our words with respect to our enemies and adversaries.

People often ask why God just doesn’t strike down people with a white scaly infection anymore in response to our words. The answer is that that infection has crawled way past our skin, way past our clothes, and way past our homes—it now infects the very foundations of our society. Every one of us, and everything in our society is white and scaly with the scourge of tongues that have bent the truth to be used in the service of violence and ill-will and slander. We’re all guilty and diseased by now.

But the lesson of Aharon and his wise and loving use of words still remain. That other bird, the bird of words used wisely, still flies free in the world for us to discover. The world each of us longs for begins with our tongues, with each word we choose. The power of our speech is the power to use the Truth in any way we choose. The Torah is not asking us not to speak our Truth, but instead to use it with the greatest of care and awe and wisdom and love. The Torah wants us to understand that none of us can ever know the Absolute Truth, so we will always only perceive an imperfect or ‘bent’ aspect of the Truth. The Truth can always bend in either direction of any argument, so let us bend it wisely! Next time we are impassioned about our cause, let us pause before the words come out of our mouths, before the cameras and the newspapers record our words, before our speech falls on the ears of those who will use our words as incitement to hate and fear and do violence. Let us instead bend the Truth in the service of Peace, and use our words to “ohev shalom v’rodef shalom,” to love peace and to pursue peace, “ohev et habriot umekarvan laTorah,” to bring love to our fellow human beings, and to bring them to Torah, to wisdom, and to peace.


[i] Sfat Emet 3:143

[ii] Adapted from Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales. Woodstock, VT.Skylight Illuminations, 2004. p. 27.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Healthy Shame

There’s a very poignant moment right at the beginning of Parashat Shmini in the Torah. Moses calls to his brother Aharon to take his place officially as the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest of Israel. And Moses says “Krav el hamizbe’ach,” “Come forward to the altar.” Rashi, the great medieval commentator, explains that Aharon himself wouldn’t come forward. He was bashful—“Hayah Aharon boosh v’yareh lageshet,” Aharan was ashamed and afraid to approach to take his place—not until Moses verbally proded him—“Come forward!”—“Lamah atah boosh?” Why are you ashamed, Aharon? For this [for this priesthood] were you chosen! So why was Aharon so ashamed and bashful? We get lots of theories from our rabbinic commentators. The M’norat HaMa’or explains that Aharon felt ashamed to take such an exalted position after having assisted the Israelites with the sin of the Golden Calf. That in fact, it was because he felt such shame and remorse for his past sinful actions that he was chosen to become the High Priest in the first place. That’s a good explanation.

The S’fat Emet has another understanding. A brilliant insight: He said that, instead of understanding Aharon as having been chosen because he felt ashamed, read it “aderaba,” read it just the opposite way : that the goal of having been chosen to be High Priest was “lizchut lavo l’y’dei booshah,” “so that he could merit feeling shame!” What?! Why would shame ever be something to be merited? Why would anyone or anything set as a goal--as a reward--to have the experience of shame?! But, indeed, says the Sfat Emet, shame is the reward! And it’s not just Aharon who deserves the reward of shame—it’s all of Israel: As the Talmud (Nedarim 20a) says, “Mi she’ain lo boshet,” “He who has no shame,” “b’yadua shelo amdu raglei avoteinu al har Sinai,” “then it is certain that our ancestors did NOT stand at Mount Sinai.” And, explains the Sfat Emet, Aharon’s sense of shame was so deep—this is the token of his true perfection! And so, for the Sfat Emet and for the rabbis of the Talmud, shame is good!

Gevalt ! we might say to such an idea! If there’s anything we have come to understand in our modern idiom, it’s that shame is a pernicious and destructive feeling. We know that guilt is neurotic enough, but shame is of an altogether deeper order of suffering. Shame is the feeling of “I am loathsome! I am disgusting! I deserve only the worst.” Shame is what survivors of abuse must struggle with on a daily basis. Shame is the horrific stumbling block that fuels the fire of all kinds of addictions and substance abuse. Shame is what obliterates a human being’s sense of self esteem and joy, and it can destroy a person’s ability to live a full and loving life. If there’s anything we all know, it’s that shame is NOT good! …Aderaba--quite the contrary--says the Sfat Emet. Shame really CAN BE good….!

There’s a story told of how once, Reb Yisrael of Ruzhin listened to a Hasid of Reb Moshe Zvi of Savran extol the virtues of his teacher. “My teacher, Reb Moshe, “ said the Hasid “is a man of deep humility. Even the slightest sign of honor given to him would make him question his own worth. He never thinks he is worthy!” Then the Hasid paused. He was expecting Reb Yisrael marvel at the humility of his master. But Reb Yisrael said nothing. So, the Hasid went on: “Indeed, there is one town so taken with my rebbe that whenever he visits, the whole town turns out to honor him.” “And this troubles him?” Reb Yisrael asked the Hasid. “Oh yes! Troubles him indeed! First, he would say it was the carriage that they honored, noting its fine construction. Then he would hope it was the horses they honored, marveling at their strength. But in the end he knew it was him they honored. He would worry over the vanity of humankind to the point of making himself sick. He would actually vomit from all the fuss made over him!”

“Oy, nebbich!” Reb Yisrael exclaimed. “This poor fellow! Could he not find a better way to deal with honor than to vomit?! There is a simple method: to receive all honor and yet to be attached to none of it. It wasn’t the honor that caused our dear brother to vomit; it was his own obsession with honor![i]

This story points us in the direction of understanding why and how our sages could possibly make the claim that shame itself is good. In our story, it seems to the Hasid that Reb Moshe is such a great man because he behaves with such humility. ‘Oh, it’s not little old me that you honor—it’s the carriage, the horses!’ Reb Yisrael is right in saying that what’s actually sickening is that he only seems humble, but he’s not. Reb Moshe is actually self-obsessed! What is sickening is to act humbly, but within our heart of hearts to lack True Shame!...

One more story: Reb Aharon of Karlin visted his rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch, as often as he could. Returning home from one such visit, Reb Aharon was besieged by a great crowd of friends and fellow Hasidim. “Tell us what you have learned, Reb Aharon,” they cried. “Tell us what you have learned!” When the crowd great quiet, that all might hear what Reb Ahraon would impart to them, he said “I learned nothing.” Not sure they understood him, his friends asked again, “What did you learn from the great Maggid?” Again, Reb Aharon waited for silence. Again he said, “Nothing.” Certain that Reb Aharon was denying them some great teaching, his friends said sarcastically, “So you bother to make these many trips to Mezritch so that you can learn nothing?” “Exactly,” said Reb Aharon. “I gained the knowledge that I am nothing.”[ii]

And that’s it: when the Sfat Emet teaches that the great reward of the Priesthood is shame, he means this very message: the knowledge that “I am nothing!” From a Jewish perspective, there is actually such a thing as ‘healthy shame.’ Unhealthy shame is the shame that you and I hate: it’s self-loathing, it’s living with a message that “I am bad.” Healthy shame, however, is the experience of true humility, experienced from the inside-out: it’s living with the message of “I am nothing at all.” The “self” that I cherish, that I’m obsessed with, ultimately, in the face of the Other, is nothing at all! It’s the deepest possible kind of insight and knowledge--that there is, in fact, no barrier between me and you. So in actuality, when the rabbis talk of ‘booshah’ or a healthy kind of shame, they don’t really mean ‘shame’ in the way we use the term. What they really mean is the experience of living with True Selflessness.

In the Mishnah, our ancient sages teach us, “Al t’hiyu ka’avadim ham’shamshim et haRav al m’nat lekabel p’ras,” “Be not like servants who serve their Master in order to receive a reward.” “Elah, havu ka’avadim ham’shamshim et haRav shelo al m’nat lekabel p’ras,” “Rather, be like servants who serve their Master NOT in order to receive a reward.” (Avot 1:3). It’s a teaching all about unconditional service, of course. The Sfat Emet, however, points out that the teaching could have simply said: “Do not serve in order to receive a reward.” But instead, it says don’t serve the Master in order to receive a reward. Why? It’s in order to emphasize the fact that even the act of service itself is NEVER about you! It’s all about the Master, about God, about the One you’re serving—you are nothing in that equation, you are simply the agent of the service itself.

What does this really mean? It’s the difference between the commonly accepted notion of “charity” and the Jewish concept of “Tzedakah.” You are walking down the street. A homeless person asks you if you can spare any change. It’s an act of charity if you decide to act out of the goodness of ‘your’ heart, if you ‘take pity’ on the homeless person and give them alms. And then, once you have given, you feel a sense of self-congratulatory satisfaction because you have done a good deed. That’s a good thing to do, of course! Tzedakah, on the other hand, is altogether deeper. Tzedakah flows from that feeling of True Selflessness: a homeless person asks for money. God has seen fit to open the whole universe before you in that moment—as a moment of righting a wrong, of fixing a tear in the fabric of Creation itself by moving the change in my pocket, into my hand, and then moving my hand toward the hand of one who truly needs that change: who am I to stand in the way of God’s infinite compassion acting through me in that instant! This is Tzedakah, and this is True Selflessness!

This Selflessness is also the difference between conventional notions of ‘forgiveness’ and the Jewish idea of T’shuvah: In an act of forgiveness “I” am the one who is forgiving you. In my kind-heartedness, I am deciding to extend to you my pardon despite what I feel you have done to me. Forgiveness is a wonderful thing to do. But in all of that, we are still self-absorbed. There is no true ‘Selflessness.’ But in T’shuvah, I have Returned from my self-obsession, back to the realization that I am Nothing in the face of the Other. And so, I stand in your presence, not even separate from you. I stand in Your Presence as one not defined by past angers and hurts and judgments—only as one prepared to do right by you Now; to show you compassion Now just exactly as you are, without any story from my past projected onto your life.

At that poignant moment, when Moses sees that his brother Aharon is too ashamed to come forward, Moses says “Zeh hadavar asher tzivah Adonay ta’asu v’yera Aleichem k’vod Adonay,” Aharon: “This is the thing that God has commanded you to do that the Glory of God may appear to you.” In a sense, Moses is saying: You have merited this knowledge that you are Nothing before the people, and because of this, the Glory of God can now appear to us all! Remember what the Sfat Emet said: Aharon was chosen for the priesthood that he might be rewarded with shame. Don’t serve the Master to receive a reward, rather serve the Master NOT to receive a reward—say the ancient sages. So the great irony of life is that, when we give up seeking to take the reward for ourselves, when we embrace that Selflessness—that Knowledge that I am Nothing—that “Shame” becomes the greatest Reward there can ever be. It is only when we come to live knowing that we are here ONLY to serve—that all Honor, all Glory, all the Majesty of this miraculous universe can finally flow through us. Like Aharon the High Priest before us, we can, once and for all become Nothing but a vessel for Holiness: for compassion and justice and Love moving out through our hand, through our actions, through every fiber of our Being, flowing out to all those who need our Presence, our Service, our Love. May we indeed come to merit the blessing of True Selflessness, and through us, may we bring about the Glory of a healed world.



[i] Adapted from Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales. Woodstock, VT.Skylight Illuminations, 2004. p. 43.

[ii] Ibid, p. 61.